Friday, February 03, 2006

Lessening Our Dependence on Foreign Oil for Energy

Largely, our oil consumption in this country is divided between what we use in industry, how we maintain our residences, and transportation. Power generation, which supplies industry and our homes, is left to the government regulated power companies. Transportation is left to the vehicle manufacturers. Our only choices as consumers are how we heat/cool and light our residences, and to purchase more energy efficient vehicles.

Sure you can buy energy efficient appliances and cars, but that only results in incremental savings, and won’t really reduce our energy independence on foreign oil to any large degree unless everybody does it. With the sheer number of SUVs on the road, that doesn't look like its happening too soon.

The utility industry, which apparently amounts to only 25% of our country's fuel consumption, should pursue nuclear and coal gasification technologies to help remove dependence on fuel oil. However, this industry already has limited oil consumption by it’s baseloaded plants. Except for peaking units, units that run when electric power use jumps, oil really isn’t used to any significant degree by utility electrical generators.

Solar energy, the predecessor in vogue to fuel cells, could never become economical until improvements were made in electrical energy storage. Likewise for windmills. The most economical means for storing electricity, the lead-acid battery, have not had any significant technological improvements since the 1800s.

In transportation, there’s talk about using ethanol. Brazil has successfully employed an ethanol infrastructure, which with the recent rise in the price of gasoline, is now economical. Plus, ethanol burns much cleaner than gasoline. But the U.S. has not yet developed a significant distribution infrastructure for this fuel yet, nor the manufacturing capacity, despite several pork-pie, federally funded efforts to favored corn farmers in the Midwest.

A few years ago, the hot topic was fuel cells. Fuel cells use hydrogen to generate electricity, and produce hot water as a byproduct. The problem with fuel cell cars is that they would require a large hydrogen distribution infrastructure, which currently does not exist, and if it did, might be dangerous.

As I see it, the key is being able to develop a means for energy storage and energy production, that’s viable both as a stationary means for both residences and industry, and a portable means. The portable means requires that the energy density, i.e., the amount of energy stored per unit of mass, must be large, so that it can be transported with the vehicle, and then converted to useful work, i.e., propulsion. If properly researched, I’d bet that liquified hydrogen offers the greatest energy density of all the alternatives currently available, and probably gasoline and ethanol come in second and third respectively. The problem is that you need either a really good refrigerator to keep that gas liquid, or you need a really high pressure, which cannot be achieved, for hydrogen to remain liquid at normal temperatures. So, its no surprise that gasoline is KING.

Since a safe hydrogen infrastructure is unlikely to be developed any time soon, perhaps the proper way to promote its use would be to utilize existing energy infrastructures to produce the hydrogen? Somehow that doesn't make sense, because why not just convert the fuel used to make the hydrogen directly into the energy form sought?

The bottom line is, since most of the oil we use is used in transportation, the best way we can lessen our dependence on foreign oil is to make improvements in transportation. The auto industry says that if they make more efficient cars, then people will just drive more. I think that's a crock of crap. Somehow, politics entered the equation, and exempted SUVs from fuel economy restrictions, which is one reason why they are so popular (the other is that they are marketed heavily, because the industry makes big buck profits from their sales).

However, improvements in this area are really tough without political backing. In order to develop a new source of fuel, the demand must be created first, i.e., develop and market the energy generator that uses the fuel, e.g., fuel cell, then the infrastructure will follow, i.e., the fuel generation and distribution means. Once sufficient demand is created, the two technologies could be separated, i.e., the fuel creation (hydrogen production) and the energy conversion processes (fuel cell), and will grow independently, with incremental improvements in each seperate industry. I doubt we'll see anything anytime soon.

G-man’s conjecture: Perhaps hydrogen could be produced by electrolysis or
steam reforming of natural gas, through a small plant, powered by solar energy, and then converted back into electricity by fuel cells when needed? Mental note: got to look into the economics of this for a residential application, since it apparently won't work for vehicles....